Most people pack way too much food when they go backpacking, especially for shorter trips lasting 1 to 2 nights in duration. While the rule of thumb is 2 lbs of food per day or 4000 calories, that number is based on what the average long-distance thru-hiker needs to eat in terms of caloric intake each day to keep hiking 20-30 miles per day and maintain their body weight. Most occasional backpackers can get by with 1.5 lbs per day of reasonably nutritious food because they’re not thru-hiking for months at a time where weight loss would be a concern. If you’re a reasonably healthy adult, you’re not going to starve to death on a short backpacking trip. Food is heavy and you don’t want to carry the extra weight if you don’t have to.
You can get all geeky about how many calories you’ll burn on a hike and therefore how many calories you need to carry, it really doesn’t matter that much for a short trip. Instead, I’d encourage you to plan out what you want to eat for breakfast and dinner, and then 3-4 fortifying snacks that you can eat in between those meals to help keep you alert and prevent your stomach from growling while you hike. A good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats is advisable but try to pack food you normally eat at home. Dehydrated or freeze-dried camping-specific meals can make you lose your appetite because let’s face it, they’re a poor imitation of real food. If you don’t eat freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff at home, you’re probably not going to enjoy it on a hiking trip either.
Appetite loss is a very common occurrence on hiking and camping trips because it takes your mind and body a few days to a week to adjust to a new schedule and food selection. The best way to counteract that is to schedule your big meals around your regular schedule and eat real food, similar to what you eat at home.
Simple Backpacking Meals and Snack Ideas
For example, here’s a sampling of meals and snacks I might pack food-wise on a 1-2 night backpacking trip. This is all real food that I enjoy to eat and is pretty close to what I eat at home when my wife (who is a foodie) isn’t around.
- Pound cake slices in separate Ziploc baggies. Keeps forever.
- Instant wheat cereal or oatmeal with a sandwich baggie full of dried fruit and nuts
- Starbuck’s instant coffee
- Peanut butter and honey sandwiches on wheat, pre-made, in separate Ziplocs.
- Nutella sandwiches on oatmeal bread, pre-made, in separate Ziplocs.
- Smashed up potato chips for calories and salt
- Ziploc bags of cookies
- Cliff bars
- Homemade gorp (raisins, nuts, m&ms)
- Dried chorizo sausage
- Small wheel of gouda cheese in wax and crackers
- Knorr rice side with a packet of tuna or chicken
- Dried cheese tortellini with a packet of olive oil and salt
- Angel hair pasta with a packet of olive oil and hot pepper flakes
- Instant rice mixed with a pack of boil-in-the-bag Indian food
When I assemble my food for a trip, I count out my meals and snacks, put it in my food bag (which is usually an Ursack) and weigh it on a digital scale. If it comes out to more than 1.5 lbs per day, I take a few snacks out to lower the weight. I still often come home with a snack or two that haven’t been eaten.
- You’re not going to starve to death on a 1 or 2-night backpacking trip. 1.5 lbs of food per day will be sufficient.
- Don’t stress out about how many calories you’ve packed. Aim for a good balance of protein, carbs, and fat but don’t sweat it.
- You’ll have a much better appetite if you eat your big meals at your normal eating times.
- Eat the foods you normally eat at home and avoid dehydrated or freeze-dried camping meals